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Hit 'em Baby One More Time

Bronson (2009)

Vertigo Films

Deep inside Wakefield prison sits Britain's most violent prisoner. Born Michael Peterson but enthusiastically embracing the alias of Charles Bronson, he has served 34 years in Britain's penal and psychiatric systems, thanks to such a history of violence and non-lethal brutality that the authorities don't know what else to do with him. Allegedly, he once took three hostages and demanded a cheese sandwich and a flight to Cuba.

Faced with that kind of theatrical instinct, "Bronson" director Nicolas Winding Refn and his co-writer Brock Norman Brock turn their subject into a flat-out actor. Played by Tom Hardy in barnstorming style, Bronson acts for an audience on an imaginary stage, swaps between several equally alarming personas and growls at the viewer directly. "I am a performer," rasps the inmate, and indeed he is. The film's characteristic shot is the wordless close-up, Bronson's inner performer warming up for his entrance and preparing to bash some luckless individual over the head.

The prison scenes are scary enough, as Mr. Refn cages Bronson's aggression between surreal prison walls, and cakes him in blood and charcoal as if he just emerged up through the floor from the inferno. Things are even scarier when Bronson briefly prowls the outside world, barreling along the streets of 1980s England – comical suitcase in his hand, comical moustache waving in the draft, part silent-movie villain and part unexploded bomb.

Mr. Refn tackles two thorny problems at once: How to depict on film a man so full of contradictions, and how such an man will bewilder a society. The first one gives the director some problems, and overused classical music from Wagner and Delibes hammers home the theatricality which is running high enough already. But the second issue is the heart of the matter, the inability of the British system to deal with a man so self-consciously empty on the inside. "What do you want," asks the latest prison governor to inherit the problem. "What have you got," replies the prisoner with some exasperation.

This is the third film in a row where I've needed a double take to check that Mr. Hardy is the actor I'm thinking of. Bulked up with muscle and disappearing so far into the character that you wonder about the effect on his home life, it's a bruising, feverish performance, whether screaming from a cell the size of a coffin or shambling around pumped with tranquilizers. But there are many other smart performers here. Juliet Oldfield is a treat as Bronson's sweetly vacant lover, so thin he might snap her in half.

"Bronson" is full of British grace notes, from the reliance on tea to Bronson's struggles with the door of a Ford Escort. The droning voice and empty stare are straight out of Peter Cook's old creation E. L. Wisty, the essential English pub bore, here turned barking sociopath. "I always knew I had a calling," Bronson groans. "I just didn't know what it was." With the clear eye of a foreigner, Mr. Refn has spotted that playing a monster from Britain's Id seems to meet his subject's needs pretty well.


Opens on Oct. 9 in New York and on March 13 in Britain.

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn; written by Brock Norman Brock and Mr. Refn; director of photography, Larry Smith; edited by Mat Newman; produced by Rupert Preston and Danny Hansford; released by Magnet Releasing (United States) and Vertigo Films (Britain). Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 18 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Tom Hardy (Michael Peterson/Charles Bronson), Matt King (Paul Daniels), Amanda Burton (Mum) and James Lance (Art Teacher).


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